Dinner Along the Amazon

  She could not quite hear the voices of the men and she could no longer bear to look at Kate, so she turned away and looked back at her own beloved house—semi-lost among the trees by the river. We’ve lived here all our lives, she thought. Joe laid that shingle only last May, and I planted the bulbs on Thursday. Why, they renewed our licence in July! So why won’t they let us stay here now? And what’ll we do with the dog?

  At five, the E.R.A. Forestry Siren began to wail on the outskirts of town and the meeting on the bridge broke up. If another plane came that night, it was decided, or if there was even a hint of tanker trucks on the highway, then the Cormans would leave. But if there were no plane and no activity on the road, then they would be satisfied that it was not happening yet and they would stay. For a while. Until it did.

  Still, Harvey Felton went home from their meeting not knowing.

  And it happened.

  At 3:10 a.m. a helicopter stuttered through the night and was above the road for at least fifteen minutes before it finally departed. The Cormans had lain awake and now they began to rise and dress, knowing exactly what to do. They started in to fill the back of their truck and both the men, father and son, went down to set the livestock loose.

  Up at the Feltons’, Harvey heard the helicopter and sighed and got out of bed and went into the bathroom and locked the door. He was thinking that if he could be alone, with just the light bulb and the mirrors and the mesmeric glitter of being bathed and warmed and steamed in memory—if he could just sink into this roomful of pleasures, womb-like, with the comfort of water—if he could only stay there a moment—an hour—he would be safe. Perhaps he could even gain admission to his courage, if he could be alone with the sanity of the past.

  But Kate got up and hadn’t slept either and went down the hall to the door and stood there scratching at it lightly so as not to wake the children. And she wanted to get in, through to him, but he would not let her and so she stood there (leaning, really), whispering through the door but thinking that she was shouting, until at last she lost her voice. And when all she got was a stammered protraction of Harvey’s indecision of the afternoon (in fact, she thought, of all his life), she wandered from the door so quietly that he was not aware she’d left.

  The Arthur Kings being gone, there were no immediate neighbours to hear her when she fired a gun, point-blank, into the temples of each of her sleeping sons. Or when she prayed and turned the thing into her own mouth without amen because she didn’t want time to think about conclusions or how you came to them. She simply pulled the trigger and the whole thing was over.

  For her.

  So, at about five o’clock, when Harvey Felton rode away on the back of Joe Corman’s pick-up truck, his feet dangled bare from his long-boned legs, and one hand was over his face. He hadn’t even dressed, and as if to fortify his reason, he’d gone over to Kings’ in just his pajamas, and had brought along the abandoned cat when he’d walked down the road to the bridge.

  Neither Joe nor Joe Junior, spoke of the blood that covered him, and because of it, no one asked after his wife and his sons. In her mind, little Nella Corman was certain that Harvey had committed murder, but Mrs Corman, having taken her private look at Kate on the bridge the previous afternoon, merely sighed and tried to remember whether they had brought with them their own guns. And saw that yes, they had.

  Barney Lambert’s wife was many years dead and his daughter had some time ago been accepted for Government-approved marriage in the City. So he lived alone.

  Barney had set the expression on his face the day his wife died and no one had seen it alter since. It was not a dour expression, or even sad. It was just set and there was never animation.

  But he was liked. His eyes showed you his whole life and sometimes yours, too, as you stood talking to him. Through his silence he could make the wisdom or the foolishness of what you said apparent. For a man who did so much listening, he had remarkably small ears, and when he was in his twenties and thirties, people had regarded him as the best-looking, the most athletic, and the kindest young man in the district. He had married Ethel Felton, a cousin of Harvey’s. But that was all a long time ago, before you had to have a licence to live, and Barney was fifty-two years old now, living on remembrance.

  When his daughter met and married her man and was given her clearance to live in the City and was gone, Barney closed the gates down by the road and without ill will of any kind, just removed himself from the people around him and became inaccessible. But he remained all that he had been—kindly, intelligent, friendly if met—and silent. He took to cultivating cabbages (a difficult crop) and to raising a menagerie of animals culled from their world without any apparent thought for their usefulness to him. Only of his usefulness to them. He had three burros, a mule, two goats, a cow, three Canada geese, and a dog. In the house he kept a cat and another dog who was too old to get around.

  He lived a plain life within a certain discipline that was neither rigid nor lax. He was aware of Time but never ran to do anything. He was not a paragon of tidiness, but he never threw a paper or a pillow on the floor.

  Barney had heard all that was going on—the aircraft, the various leave-takings, and the E.R.A. Forestry Siren. When the Cormans drove by from the river on the Tuesday morning, Barney was watching from the upstairs windows of his house, moving from room to room to see them out of sight. He noted the posture of Harvey Felton as he slumped there, holding the cat and his own face, and he remembered his own grief and he knew, more or less, what had happened to Kate Felton, and maybe to the boys, too. Barney had ceased at about the same time as everyone else to be aware that there was a God, and so he did not pray, even mentally, for these would-be survivors. A few women could tolerate prayers, but men could not, and children were alarmed by the ridiculous posture of prayer and by the closed eyes and the silent, moving lips. Still, Barney had respect and awe for something and that something was Nature and so, when he saw his neighbours depart and one of them was in grief, he slapped his thighs with the palms of his hands and gave the Universal sigh.

  Then he went down to the kitchen where the old dog was asleep under the stove, and he lit the fire to make coffee.

  Five-thirty, and a pale, high light beyond the windows.

  Barney went outside and remembered where the wheelbarrow was and brought it round to the back door. It was a sizeable barrow of the kind used for carrying manure—not one of those small, neat, garden types, but large and serviceable. He piled blankets and two pillows into it and then went back.

  He got out a cardboard carton and a can opener and filled the carton with tinned and bottled food and put the can opener in his pocket. He filled two five-gallon tins with water. Then he stuck toilet paper and a First Aid Kit under his elbows and lifted the carton and carried it outside. He came back for the water and out again, and then back again.

  At last, about 6:00 a.m., he sat down to smoke a cigarette and to drink coffee and he tried most of all not to look around the room he was in, and not to want to get up and go through the house, memory by memory. He wanted everything to be as it was now in his mind, even if he remembered it wrong, without the pain of refreshment. So he sat still and squinted at the cup and at his hands and at the cigarette. He did not even look at the table top. He just thought about right now and he saw only what was right there.

  There was, however, one very bad moment when the sun made it absolutely all the way over the horizon and had ceased being red or orange or any other colour and was just light—and Barney felt a terrific urge to put his head down and hide. He did then, for one faltered second, give his glance to the rifle in the corner and his mind to the box of bullets in the drawer. But he got out of it by standing up. His pride reminded him that his child had been accepted into Civic Society, that one of them at least had made it and that he could make it, too, if he tried.

  He took a spoonful of honey and ate it and another spoonful which he carried over carefully to the old dog.

on,” he said, “it’s time to wake up now. And go.”

  And he got to his knees and the old dog, still lying down, licked the spoon clean, and then Barney put the spoon down on the floor and left it there forever—and pulled the dog’s box out from under the stove and soothed the old dog with a litany of hums and haws and lifted him up so that the old dog’s head could rest against his neck and he walked out of the house and laid the old dog very carefully in the barrow on the blankets and pillows and surrounded him with the tinned water and the boxed food and the toilet paper and the First Aid Kit and, at the very last, the cat—and they set off toward the barn.

  And all the while the E.R.A. Siren screamed at the edge of the town: This is the End. This is the End. This is the End.

  In some instances there were spectators, but this depended on the season and on the direction of the wind. It also depended upon the availability of masks and on whether the event took place on a weekday or on a weekend.

  Civic people, rich in safety, could afford to watch from the privacy of the air, and there were usually a few groups of trainees who went up, too, in University helicopters, but as with all such things, Time creates tolerance and even boredom and on this particular day the only people who were by were there to work.

  You may wonder what the townspeople made of all this, and probably question the morality of their silence, because they were so close to these events and even neighbours of the victims. But they were neighbours only in the tactical sense. In fact, they formed a bulwark—a wall of protective innocence—between the City-dwellers and the Rural Expendables. The townspeople smiled among themselves and nodded at the sounding of the E.R.A. Forestry Siren and said things like “Goodness, another fire” or “When will it ever end?” and they went inside on these days and closed and locked their doors and pretended through the following weeks that they did not smell or see or hear what patently they did—what certainly they had to. They were particularly adept at going blind.

  Barney went down the lane unnoticed and got to the barn and opened the doors.

  He had known all along that when the time came he would not leave his animals, as most people had, so there was an air of well-rehearsed ritual to all that he did. His plan was to get as deep into the swamp in the valley as possible, and thereby to try for temporary survival, at least. If he could save himself or even one of his animals, then his protest would register with Nature, which was all that mattered to him.

  Barney hitched the mule to the wagon and transferred the contents of the barrow onto the wide, long planks, together with several bales of hay, three bags of feed, and the cage with the three geese. The old dog lay trustful and quiet on the nest of blankets and the stable dog got up on the seat beside where Barney would sit. The cat dug a hole in the barnyard and relieved itself and afterwards leapt up beside the old dog and lay down to stare at the geese.

  It was at this point that Barney remembered his sheepskin coat and knowing that without it he might perish in the cold of the swamp he went all the way back to the house to get it.

  When he got into the house the echo of the opening door leaked into distant emptiness upstairs like a prowling animal and Barney closed his eyes and waited for the silence to return.

  But it didn’t.

  A new sound shied in behind him and beyond him and it came from so far away that he could at first only imagine that he heard it.



  The highway.

  Barney gained his composure by remembering anger.

  They were coming now and he was to be the next victim of the new E.R.A.

  And so he went very calmly into the back hall and got down his sheepskin coat from its peg and put it on—for all that it seemed to be a summer’s day—and he took his binoculars and went out onto the road to see what he could see.

  In his mind he practised the moment when he must leave the road and run to the barn in order to save the animals and then he sat down on a large rock near the gate and watched, through the binoculars, the distant end of the road where there was a hill beyond which you could not see the deadly highway.

  He wondered if Turvey and his old dog had got away. And he thought not. He wondered if he could get the beautiful old church into his mind, but, along with God, he couldn’t. He thought of Myrna Jewell’s chickens and what might have become of them and of Arthur King as a boy when they were both boys and he tried to get by the Feltons’ house in his mind, without going inside, but he kept thinking that he knew Harvey too well and too long not to guess at what had happened and for the first time since she’d died, he blessed his own wife’s death as a prize of good fortune that she should not have had to face this moment now because she might have had to do what he instinctively sensed poor Kate had done.

  And then he was able to take a real look through the glasses at the Cormans’ new roof and to go along by the lenses into their barnyard and to see there some stupid cow who’d come back from the swamp in the valley and he wavered on the brink of going over with the gun to drive her off or to kill her but there wasn’t time.

  The E.R.A. Forestry Siren gave another earnest wail at the moment, rising into a steady blast—a wail that would continue into the night and perhaps even into the next day, depending on whether it rained or not and on whether a wind rose or not and on whether anyone was seen along the road.

  It was not until rehearsing that sequence in his mind, as he sat there waiting and listening to the siren, that Barney knew he was going to let himself be seen.

  He was going to do what perhaps no one else had done till now. He was going to force a pair of eyes to look into his own. Someone had to see someone.

  The incongruous sun blazed down and Barney loosened the sheepskin coat around him, lit another cigarette, and gave a look through the glasses at his own barnyard.

  All was quiet. The dogs and the cat and even the geese seemed to sleep and the other animals just waited as if they must know, and had trusted that he would do this. He smiled. He would do it. He would start a conscience. Somehow. In someone. Right here. On this road.

  There was no wind at all—not even a breeze—and it was so clear that when the first sign that the tankers were in operation came to him, it was in the thought that the sky was filling with beautiful great clouds and that he might be saved by rain.

  But the sweeping hiss of the distant hoses cut that hope short before it was real.

  They were spraying.

  Barney tried not to, but could not avoid rising to his feet. Instinctively he threw down his cigarette, stood up, and began to breathe great gulps of the last pure air. He felt dizzy, both from fear and from too much sudden oxygen. He fought back the temptation of paralysis which wanted to conquer him. The end of the road was alive.

  Great swaying flowers of spray arched into the blue, topped with a rolling flood of cloud.

  This was what they called E.R.A.—or, to give the solvent its soothing Administration name: “Environmental Redevelopment Agent.” Sprayed from hoses, its crystal drops burned the oxygen from the air, killing every single living thing within the circumference of their fall. It wasn’t rain it formed—it was beautiful snowy mist. And when a thing died, it died in a flameless acid fire so intense that only ashes remained.

  The E.R.A. tanker trucks were yellow and they were manned by suited E.R.A. Foresters in orange and green, who wore oxygen tanks on their backs and asbestos gloves and shoes, and who could only be faced through the treated plastic visors of their helmets, and who had no voices except amongst themselves, inside the safety of their suits.

  They came along the road in mechanical procession, stepping out in unison to the spurting rhythm of their hoses.

  The siren had mounted to its ultimate wail now—continuous.

  All Barney wanted was one face—just one pair of eyes before he ran. He knew that he could only hope to see them through his binoculars, that he could let them get no closer than the Cormans’ by the river, but he knew, too,
that from that distance he could see the moment of recognition and that was all he wanted: a look to mark his own existence in another man’s eyes, before he fled.

  They were approaching the river now—three tankers, each leashed by hoses to six men, and behind the tankers a travesty of hope so insidious that Barney could not believe his eyes—an ambulance, marked by huge red crosses. How could it ever stop to take in survivors when of course, by the very nature of the solvent, there could be no survivors? It was there only to satisfy the grotesque conscience of the Government and of all the World Bodies that were dedicated to Cities and that supported this scheme for the control of rural populations.

  He had risen now and was standing, poised on his toes, so completely flooded inside with adrenalin that he was virtually ill and retching. But he jammed the binoculars against the bones of his face and waited.

  It was unfortunate that he did not run instead. But it was too late. The meeting of eyes was adhesive when it happened and once he found them and was staring and being stared at, everything but panic stopped.

  He heard himself saying, “Child—child—child—they’re only children” and he felt his stomach heave over and the sickly sweet taste of curdled honey rise into his mouth. For he had seen the eyes of a boy no more than sixteen years old. And they had not been what he’d thought he’d see. For there was no fear in them and not an ounce of human recognition and he had not known that that could be—that such eyes existed as he saw there beyond the glass and the plastic—blind, but cognizant. Signalling sight, but reflecting nothing more than the reaction of a meter when it registers the presence of electrical force. The boy’s eyes looked and let him go, without a flicker of human response.

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